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Image: Netflix

“There are more captive tigers in the U.S. than there are in the wild throughout the world,” the narrator of a viral, new Netflix series states. At the peak of his success, Joseph Maldonado-Passage – aka “Joe Exotic” – had nearly 100 of the world’s 3,890 tigers. “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” a 7-part “true murder-for-hire story” that no small number of viewers are calling “the craziest thing they have ever seen,” follows the flamboyant Maldonado-Passage in his role as the former proprietor of a private Oklahoma zoo – which was home to some 50 species of animals, including 200 big cats, such as tigers, lions, and puma – and a corresponding traveling magic show.

As the show’s official synopsis puts it, “Things take a dark turn” for Maldonado-Passage, who describes himself as a “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet,” and his big cat empire “when Carole Baskin, an animal activist and owner of [the Tampa, Florida-based Big Cat Rescue sanctuary], threatens to put [him] out of business.”

As the series reveals, the decades-long feud between Maldonado-Passage and Baskin was born from Baskin’s efforts to put a stop to Maldonado-Passage’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Memorial Park, a private zoo that Maldonado-Passage built on a sweeping parcel of land in rural Oklahoma. According to Baskin, Maldonado-Passage’s “dirty” venture and his “band of big cat abusers”  sought to “profit and reap pecuniary gain from exotic animals,” while engaging in egregious acts of “exploitation” and “abuse” of the animals. 

In furtherance of her quest to get the G.W. Exotic Animal Park to stop its “incessant breeding of exotic cats,” and put an end to the “deplorable conditions” in which the animals were kept, Baskin “went to great lengths in an attempt to put Joe Exotic out of business, including asking her broad online fanbase to send mass emails to venues where he took his animal tours, asking them to stop hosting his shows,” according to Time.

Maldonado-Passage did merely not sit by while Baskin “willfully and maliciously” attempted to “injure [his] character and reputation” and the reputation of his zoo and traveling magic show. He retaliated by posting a string of videos harassing and threatening violence against Baskin. “He started filming videos in which he read aloud copies of Baskin’s diary, which he had acquired after one of her former employees stole it, and posted them online,” per Time. “He suggested that Baskin’s diary entries showed that she’d killed her former husband [who mysteriously disappeared in 1997], and [so, he] began a campaign to get her arrested for his death.”

The videos would, of course, prove to be small change compared to what Maldonado-Passage had in store for his rival. In 2016, he (unsuccessful) hatched a plan to hire hit men to kill Baskin on two separate occasions. When his initial hit man ended up running off with the $3,000 that he was paid him in November 2017, Maldonado-Passage attempted – again, unsuccessfully – to have Baskin killed by another hitman. This time, the hitman was an uncover FBI agent, which ultimately resulted in his arrest by the FBI and his conviction on 21 counts, including two counts of murder-for-hire.

But as several episodes of the highly-watched series indicate, long before Maldonado-Passage concocted his two-time murder-for-hire plot, for which he was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2019, another fight had been underway between the two parties: a 10-year-long trademark squabble that got its start in 2010 when Maldonado-Passage decided – as part of his revenge plot against Baskin – to rename his Wynnewood, Oklahoma-based zoo to mirror that of her exotic cat-centric, non-profit organization.

According to the complaint that it filed against Maldonado-Passage and co. (“the defendants”) in a Florida federal court in January 2011, Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue Corp. (“BCR”) claimed that it had been using the BCR name in connection with its sanctuary and animal abuse-centric public awareness campaigns since 2003, and maintains federal trademark registrations for the name. 

Nonetheless, BCR claims that in early 2010, the defendants “conceived of a plan to harm the credibility and goodwill of BCR by causing public confusion through the adoption of a misleading and confusing name, Big Cat Rescue Entertainment.” More than merely adopting a confusingly similar name and using similar imagery to promote their “commercial exhibits” of exotic animals, BCR claims that the defendants “engaged in a counter-campaign of disinformation, misinformation and disparagement seeking to deflect [BCR’s] criticism of their exploitative exhibition of exotic animals by attempting to diminish the credibility and goodwill of BCR.” 

In fact, BCR claimed in its complaint that Maldonado-Passage, who also went by the last name Schreibvogel, “boasted on Facebook that he ‘registered the Big Cat Entertainment’ name so BCR ‘could ruin’ its goodwill ‘on Google all by [itself], and it is working.’”

With the forgoing in mind, BCR set out claims of trademark infringement and unfair competition, asserting that consumers were likely to confuse the two companies, which was causing it to suffer “irreparable damages.” In addition to monetary damages, BCR asked the court to order the defendants to immediately and permanently refrain from engaging in further infringement.

The lawsuits did not stop there, though. Eight months later, in September 2012, BCR filed a second suit against Maldonado-Passage (who is listed as Joseph Schreibvogel in the complaint) and Big Cat Rescue Entertainment, among other related defendants. This time, BCR cited claims of copyright infringement and misrepresentation, arguing that in August 2011, the defendants had posted videos on YouTube featuring BCR’s copyright-protected photos without its permission or consent. In at least one instance, BCR alleged that the defendants used one of her copyright-protected photos along with “the offensive caption, ‘Tame Bunnies Killed & Bled by Order of Carole Baskin to Make Bloodsicles for Her Cats.’” 

A month later, in October 2012, BCR filed a third lawsuit, again lodging claims of copyright infringement and misrepresentation. This time BCR that the defendants had used three of its copyright-protected photos and two videos, including one entitled, “How to Make a Tiger Popsicle,” on the “TheJoeexotic” YouTube page and a Facebook page for “Joe A. Schreibvogel” without permission. Again, BCR sought immediate relief from the defendants’ alleged pattern of infringement and monetary damages to remedy the significant damage that they had been waging upon BCR.

The three cases proceeded to make their way through the litigation process in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, a federal court in the humid-and-swampy Tampa, with Maldonado-Passage and the other defendants denying Baskin’s claims and fighting back by way of a host affirmative defenses. In all of the cases, the defendants argued that Baskin’s claims should be barred by the doctrine of unclean hands; they were essentially arguing that Baskin had acted “unethically in relation to the subject of the lawsuit” and thus, should be prevented from reaping any wins in the cases.

In response to Baskin’s trademark infringement claims, the defendants argued that BCR lacks valid rights in the “Big Cat Rescue” mark because it is “a generic term without the capacity to function as a source identifier or achieve secondary meaning,” and “is merely descriptive and cannot be protected because [BCR] has not demonstrated that the mark has acquired secondary meaning or distinctiveness.” 

In addition to lodging defenses to Baskin’s suits, the defendants set forth claims of their own, seeking “damages exceeding $15,000,” among other remedies in connection with BCR’s alleged acts of “libel, slander, and tortious interference with a business relationship.” According to the defendants, BCR made more than 50 allegedly “false statements” about them, including that “Schreibvogel is involved in a ‘dangerous, deadly business,’” that “Schreibvogel operates ‘puppy mills’ whereby [he] ‘churns out dangerous carnivores,’” and that the “animals cared for and sheltered [by the defendants] endure a ‘poor quality of life and lack of care,’” among others. Such statements “were published to third persons, including entities for which [the defendants] had existing business relationships as well as to potential customers,” they argued. 

Fast forward to Friday, February 8, 2013, just over two years after BCR filed its first suit, and within a week, all three of the cases were brought to a close. In the two copyright infringement cases that BCR lodged against Maldonado-Passage and co., the court sided with BCR, and mandated that the defendants permanently refrain from “committing any other act which infringes upon BCR’s copyrights,” and ordered them to pay a total of $75,000 in damages in connection with their infringement.

As for the first case that BCR filed, the trademark infringement matter that served to formally initiate the parties’ legal feud, in a final judgment and permanent injunction dated February 11, the court similarly required that the defendants cease all infringement activity and also refrain from engaging in “any act of unfair competition or deceptive trade practice.” More than that, the court ordered the defendants to pay up $953,000 in compensatory damages and attorney’s fees, while also putting an end to their counterclaims against BCR in furtherance of the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. 

While the parties’ intellectual property cases may have been put to bed in early 2013, it would ultimately be revealed that the worst was yet to come just a few years later when Maldonado-Passage hired hit men to try to kill Baskin not once but twice in furtherance of their rivalry, one that, according to Netflix, demonstrates that “the only thing more dangerous than a big cat is its owner.”